Big Island Itinerary 5 Days: Best Things to Do

The Island of Hawai’i, the largest of the Hawaiian islands and commonly referred to as ‘The Big Island’, is a fantastic place to visit. This Big Island Itinerary 5 Days hits all the must-see attractions on both the Hilo and Kona sides if you’ve got less than a week and want to see all the best.

Unlike the more trafficked islands of Oahu and Maui, which receive over 4.5 million and 2.7 million visitors each year respectively, The Big Island sees just over 1.5 annual visitors. Besides the Island of Kauai, The Big Island is our favorite.  

The Big Island is also home to various microclimates, and we loved being able to go from the humid and tropical on the Hilo Side to the drier climate of the west side. 

And of course, the Big Island contains the famous Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where (if you are lucky and able to visit when the volcanoes are active) you might have the chance to see molten lava flows.

Best Time of Year to Visit the Big Island

April through September offer the best temperatures and the least chance of rain.  The best months to visit, in our opinion, are the ‘shoulder season’ months of April, May, September, and October, when temperatures are warm but there is less tourist traffic than during the summer months.

Getting to The Big Island

There are two international airports on The Big Island; you can either fly into the Kona Airport on the far west side of the island or the Hilo Airport on the east side. 

Because we were planning on visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park as one of our first stops, we flew into the Hilo Airport.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at a mini cabin in Pahoa, Hawaii, located about a 50-minute drive from Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.  These Airbnb cabins were truly tiny, but that was part of the fun experience for us. 

The ‘kitchenette’ was a corner shelf with a microwave, a set of dishes, and a tray table.  The shower and sink used filtered rainwater, and the bed was located up a ladder in a loft area.  Definitely an experience!  

tiny cabin on the Big Island Hawaii

Day 1 Big Island Itinerary 5 Days: Akaka Falls State Park and Botanical Gardens

Akaka Falls State Park is located just 30 minutes north of the Hilo International Airport, and this was our first stop.  The hike to the falls is very short, only 0.5 mile, and gave us our first glimpse of the lush beauty of this part of the island.

After stopping for photos at the falls, we headed over to Hawai’i Tropical Bioreserve & Garden.  This is a great activity to pair with Akaka Falls State Park, as the two are just 20 minutes apart from each other. 

We spent about 2 hours walking along the 1.25-mile trail, enjoying the unique plant life and learning about many of these endangered species.  Tickets cost $25 for adults ($12 for children ages 6-16), and the garden is open from 9 am to 5 pm.  

beautiful red flower at the Botanical gardens, one of our first stops on our Big Island itinerary 5 days

Day 2 Big Island Itinerary 5 Days: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is a must-see destination when visiting The Big Island.  This dedicated area encompasses 525 square miles (almost as large as the entire island of Oahu) and is home to two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna. 

Kilauea’s most recent eruption occurred on September 11th, 2023, and molten lava flows could be seen within the park.  For the most up-to-date information on volcanic activity, visit the official National Park Service here.

There was no impressive volcanic activity when Kendall and I visited in May of 2019, and generally, there won’t be. 

Whether or not you are one of the lucky few who gets to see molten lava, this park has all kinds of incredible things to see and do.  We saw unique hardened lava formations, looked down into immense craters, watched vapor rising from steam vents, and walked through the lush surrounding forest.  All on the same day in the same park. 

Steam Vents Overlook and Halema’uma’u Sulfur Banks Trail

We woke up early and headed over to the Steam Vents overlook right as the sun was rising.  We loved watching the vapor rise against the semi-dark sky, and we felt like we had the place to ourselves. 

We then hiked the 1.4-mile Halema’uma’u Steam Bluff and Sulfur Banks trail, which offers a cool combination of walking through the dense forest as well as getting glimpses of steam rising from smaller vents along the trail.

steam rising from the Big Island steam vents

After finishing the Sulfur Banks Trail, we hiked the Crater Rim to Keanakakoi Overlook, where we found all kinds of cool hardened lava formations.

hardened lava flow, one of the most unique things we saw | Big Island Itinerary 5 days

Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road to Hōlei Sea Arch

We drove from the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park to the famous Hōlei Sea Arch via Crater Rim Drive and then along the Chain of Craters Road. 

This hour-long route was a fantastic way to see the changing landscape, and there are many places where you can stop to see hardened lava flows and craters.  See a full list of stops here.

The coastline as seen from the Chain of Craters Road

Day 3 Big Island Itinerary: Biking/Hiking in Hilo, Luau and Fire Show

Hilo is a great area for short hikes and bike trails.  The Hilo Bayfront Park has a short paved pathway along the beachfront, perfect for walking or biking, and this last morning on the east side of the island was a great opportunity to explore some of the other beautiful trails in the Hilo area. 

Our recommendations would be the Puna Trail (a 5-mile often muddy jungle walk where if you are lucky you can spot sea turtles), the short walk to Rainbow Falls Upper Lookout, and the half-mile walk to Kaumana Caves, a lava tube formation created in 1881 from Mauna Loa.

In the evening, Kendall went to dinner and Luau.  The admission price was fairly steep, but the food was incredible all-you-can-eat Kalua Pig, purple Molokai sweet potatoes, and Lomi Lomi Salmon, with all kinds of sides and desserts. 

And of course, we loved the impressive fire dancing show.  Would we pay for the experience again?  Maybe not, but it’s something we were glad we got to experience once. 

Tourist with a bowl of soup and a plate of traditional Hawaiian pork

Day 4 Big Island Itinerary: Day hike down to Waipio Beach

Today we woke up early to make our way to the north side of the island.  Waipio Beach is reached via a very steep 4.7-mile stretch of road.  When we went, hiking on this road was allowed, but as of February 2022, this road has been closed to all pedestrian traffic and private vehicles. 

It may still be possible to visit this beach with a guided tour group only.  See updated details at the official hawaiicounty.gov website.

the shoreline of Waipio Beach as seen from above
Our view from the overlook near the parking lot
the black sands against the backdrop of the cliffs at Waipio Beach

Day 5 Big Island Itinerary: Snorkeling at Honaunau Bay, visit Kikaua Point Beach Park

No trip to the Big Island is complete without a snorkeling trip.  Following some local advice, we headed over to Honaunau Bay on the west side of the island. 

This stretch of beach is full of lava rock formations and coral reefs, which make for fantastic snorkeling.  The lava shelves have formed what are almost like steps leading down to the water (hence the nickname ‘Two Step Beach’). 

I have been snorkeling in various places, including Cano Island in Costa Rica and off the coast of the Dominican Republic, and Honaunau is by far the best snorkeling I have ever done. 

It was like jumping into the Atlanta City Aquarium; there were colorful fish everywhere.  This bay is fantastic for beginners because the lava-formed enclosure creates a fairly calm wave-free area.

Parking is limited at the beach entrance, and the water often becomes more cloudy in the afternoon, so we recommend heading out early.

After Honaunau Bay, and while we still had access to our rented snorkel equipment, we drove an hour north to Kikaua Point Beach Park. 

This is a great family-friendly area that has restrooms and drinking water, and the path from the parking lot to the beachfront is paved and stroller/wheelchair accessible. 

Our favorite part about this beach is that there is a small shallow cove area that is walled off by lava rocks, creating a great spot for swimming or easy snorkeling.  We put on our snorkeling gear and saw a few fish (not nearly as many as at Honaunau), and then spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach.

With More Time

We could have spent weeks on The Big Island.  With more time, consider adding the following to your itinerary:

  • Mauna Kea stargazing tour
  • Night snorkel tour to see Manta Rays
  • Join a farm tour and learn about locally-made coffee, chocolate, nuts, and more
  • Relax in one of the hot ponds in the Puna district